There aren’t any awards for second-year players, but they are maybe the most important group of players in baseball. They represent the present and future of their teams, as well as the league. Those who succeed will ultimately become the new faces of MLB and may end up leading their teams to future postseason glory. Thus, the continued development of last season’s rookies is vital for teams seeking to be competitive.
I took a look at all of last season’s rookies and chose the five I believe are most likely to breakout this season. My criteria were fairly simple. Any player who lost rookie eligibility last season, is likely to be a regular for their team this season, and finished with under 3.0 fWAR was on my list. I tried to find players whose performance, prospect pedigree, and room for improvement could make them potential stars. Without further ado, here are my five most likely second-year breakout candidates.
Alex Bregman, 3B, Houston Astros
Questions still abound about Bregman’s defense, but the kid can hit. The 22-year-old seized the hot corner for the ‘Stros with a .264/.313/.478 batting line in 217 plate appearances. We can conservatively pencil Bregman in for three times as many plate appearances this season, so he’ll provide more value simply by being up with Houston for a full season. Additionally, Bregman struck out 24 percent of the time in 2016, a number that most expect to drop quite a bit. He should also improve upon his 6.9 percent walk rate, so the overall offensive profile looks good. If Bregman can maintain his power and improve his plate discipline, he’ll quickly become a fringe All-Star.
Willson Contreras, C, Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs have produced an unreal amount of young talent and Contreras is the latest to emerge as a potential star for the North Siders. While much of the press surrounded, rightfully, Gary Sanchez last summer, Contreras was busy putting up a line of .282/.357/.488 in 283 plate appearances. He rated above average by Baseball Prospectus’s framing metrics and frequently showed off his phenomenal athleticism as the backstop. Contreras posted a 23.7 K rate and a 9.2 BB rate, both of which should see improvements, especially on a Cubs team that emphasizes plate discipline. Some see him being less of a power hitter than he was in 2016, but even 20-HR power from the catcher position would make him one of the elites at the position. Combine that with his already good defense and a more developed ability to command a pitching staff and you have a superstar.
Blake Snell, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Snell has long been prophesied as the next great arm to come out of the Rays system. The first look did not disappoint, as the young lefty posted a 3.54 ERA with a 3.39 FIP in 89 innings pitched. His K rate of 24.7 was a good start and should increase as he better learns how to pitch in the majors. His major area of concern is one that you hear a lot with young starters and that was his control. Snell walked over 12 percent of hitters in 2016, which is certainly not great. His control in the minors was an issue too, so the road ahead could be bumpy, but with this much talent, Snell could become a top-tier starting pitcher in 2017.
Jameson Taillon, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
There have been so many delays to the arrival of Taillon that it feels like we have been waiting forever to see him. Taillon finally debuted in 2016 and made the most of it with a 3.38 ERA and a 3.71 FIP in 104 innings pitched. Taillon only struck out 20.3 percent of hitters, but the 25-year-old righty has never been a power pitcher. He is an extraordinary command arm, though, as evidenced by his 4.1 walk rate in his rookie season. Even a small spike in his strikeout numbers would make Taillon no worse than a no.3 starter and he has a chance to become one of the better arms in the National League.
Julio Urias, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Here we come to the most exciting young pitcher in all of baseball, which I know are dangerous last words, but Urias lives up to the hype. Making your debut before you even exit your teens is pretty unusual and only the most talented players can make it happen. Urias posted a 3.39 ERA and a 3.17 FIP in 77 innings, which suggests he may even have been a tad unlucky. He also struck out a quarter of batters just for good measure, while maintaining good control with a 9.2 walk rate. Urias will not be able to legally drink until August of this season, so there’s still time for him to grow into his body and become even better. The usual caveats of young arms apply, but barring an injury, Urias should become one of the best pitchers in baseball before long.null